Tense and the Subjunctive Mood

Four tenses in common use

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Espero que comas. (I hope you eat.). Evan P. Cordes/Creative Commons.

Learning not only when to use the subjunctive mood, but which form of the subjunctive to use, can be one of the most difficult parts of learning Spanish verb usage. The rules can appear quite complicated at first, partly because the subjunctive mood is nearly absent in English. But learning the tenses — either in the traditional way of memorizing rules and then applying them or by becoming familiar enough with the language to know what sounds right — is essential to gaining fluency.

Four Subjunctive Tenses in Everyday Use

In normal usage, Spanish uses the subjunctive mood in a single simple present tense as well as three tenses that can refer real or hypothetical past actions:

  • Present subjunctive
  • Present perfect subjunctive
  • Imperfect subjunctive
  • Past perfect (or pluperfect) subjunctive

Remember that, generally speaking, the subjunctive is used in dependent clauses. Which form of the subjunctive is used depends on two factors:

  • The tense of the verb in the main clause
  • The time relationship between the subjunctive verb in the dependent clause and the main verb

Although there are exceptions, and the rules of grammar in real life are more fluid than is suggested here, the following list shows the most common (but not only) ways in which the tenses are differentiated:

  • If the main verb is in the present, future, or present perfect tense or the imperative mood, and the dependent (subjunctive) verb refers to action that takes place (whether in actuality or not) at the same time or after the main verb, then the dependent verb should be in the present subjunctive. Example: Espero que comas. (I hope you eat.)
  • If the main verb is in the present, future or present perfect tense or imperative mood, and the dependent (subjunctive) verb refers to action that has been completed (whether in actuality or not), then the dependent verb should be in the present perfect subjunctive. Example: Espero que hayas comido. (I hope you have eaten.)
  • If the main verb is in the preterite, imperfect, past perfect or conditional tense, and the dependent (subjunctive) verb refers to action that takes place (whether in actuality or not) at the same time or after the action of the main verb, then the imperfect subjunctive is used. Example: Esperé que comieras. (I hoped you ate.)
  • If the main verb is in the preterite, imperfect, past perfect or conditional tense, and the dependent verb refers to action that has been completed (whether in actuality or not), then the past perfect subjunctive (also called pluperfect subjunctive) is used. Example: Esperé que hubieras comido. (I hoped you had eaten.) These verbs are often the equivalent of English verbs taking the form of "had + participle."

Note that in many cases there are various ways of translating the sentence to English. For example, "espero que comas" also could be translated as "I hope that you will eat." Because there is no future subjunctive in everyday use, verbs in the present subjunctive form often are translated into English using the future tense. Dudo que me compres recuerdos, I doubt you will buy souvenirs for me.

Another Analysis of Subjunctive Tenses

Here's another way to look at the sequence of verb tenses:

  • If the main verb is in a present or future tense, use either the present subjunctive or present perfect subjunctive, depending on whether the subjunctive verb refers to action (or presumed action) that has been completed.
  • If the main verb is in a past or conditional tense, use either the imperfect or past perfect subjunctive, depending on whether the subjunctive verb refers to action has has been completed (or presumably completed) at the time of the action in the main verb.

These tenses can seem confusing at first. But as you learn the language they will become second nature. To learn more about this topic explained in a different way, see the lesson on the sequence of tenses.

Sample Sentences Using the Subjunctive Tenses

¿Por qué preferimos que Siri sea una mujer? (Why do we prefer that Siri be a woman?) Both the main verb, preferemos, and the dependent verb, sea (from ser) are in the present tense.

The dependent verb refers to an action that takes place in the present.

No estoy feliz que el presidente haya ganado la elección. (I am not happy that that the president has won the election.) The present perfect subjunctive is used because the election is a completed action.

Sus amigos consolaron a Pablo luego de que él perdiera el juego. (His friends consoled Pablo after he lost the game.) Because the main verb is in the preterite and its action clearly took place after the action in the dependent clause, the imperfect tense is used to refer to the completed action.

La doctora negó que hubiera comprado un apartamento en ese edificio. (The doctor denied she had bought an apartment in that building.) The action of the dependent verb took place (or didn't) at an indefinite time, and the main verb is in the preterite, so the pluperfect is used.

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Erichsen, Gerald. "Tense and the Subjunctive Mood." ThoughtCo, Feb. 3, 2018, thoughtco.com/tense-and-the-subjunctive-mood-3079848. Erichsen, Gerald. (2018, February 3). Tense and the Subjunctive Mood. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/tense-and-the-subjunctive-mood-3079848 Erichsen, Gerald. "Tense and the Subjunctive Mood." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/tense-and-the-subjunctive-mood-3079848 (accessed April 27, 2018).